Tonight's programme from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players had a fairly simple theme: Hail Bright Cecilia. Both Purcell and Britten set words concerning St Cecilia and so it probably seemed like a good idea to lump them altogether in one programme.
Now, I should probably put my cards on the table: a few works such as the Funeral Music for Queen Mary aside, I am not the world's greatest fan of Purcell. I like Britten very much though, and on this occasion the comparison did Purcell no favours.
The programme led off with his Ode for St Cecilia's Day: Welcome to all the Pleasures. It didn't really seem to build to anything and seemed very samey. I find baroque music often can, Handel has similar dangers if not done well, and it requires either a degree of oomph or to find something special in the ornamentation to avoid this. McCreesh and the Gabrielis did not seem to. In addition, despite it being a fairly short piece, the choir and the soloists kept getting up, sitting down and moving around on the rostra to not much effect other than a lot of clunking about. The programme, normally so good in this regard, did not print the words. A shame because the diction was such that it would have been useful.
The work appeared even poorer when set next to Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, op.27. His first key advantage is that the text is by Auden, whose words are a cut above those that were audible of Purcell's librettist. This time round not only was the diction better but we also had the text to help us along. The piece is for choir only, and quite magical: the way the soloist moves in and out of synchronisation with the chorus, the beautiful round singing. It is simply captivating. The soprano soloist, Grace Davidson, sang superbly with a beautifully toned voice. (Like all the evening's soloists, she was a member of the consort, and thus her name was not known to me. We posted the following appeal "If she, or anyone who can name her, is reading this, we would like to credit her properly." and within 12 hours some kind sole from the Gabrieli consort had provided it via the comment below, our thanks, and our astonishment you read this.)
After the interval it was back to Purcell, and this time his slightly later Ode for St Cecilia's Day: Hail, Bright Cecilia. A longer piece, it dragged even more than the first. Again, it didn't really seem to build to anything (except the timpanist finally getting to do something). There was even more standing up and wandering around for no readily apparent reason. Frankly, I was rather bored.
The use of period instruments didn't especially endear them to me either. As a rule, my reaction when hearing a period instrument is that I can tell why we have modern ones now. While I felt the choir was pretty good, I had reservations about the orchestra who didn't seem quite as sharp. That said, the harpsichordist was particularly good and the two trumpeters were superb (the more so as period trumpets are difficult to play with no fluffs). I didn't care to watch McCreesh, who flounced about while conducting, rather a little like a marionette.
All in all, slightly disappointing. I'd have enjoyed it just as much, if not more so, if all we'd had had been the Britten.